When it comes to fear-inducing situations, job interviews are right up there with public speaking and first dates.
In fact, a recent survey found that 92% of people feel interview anxiety, citing doubt over their qualifications, whether they'd be able to answer questions correctly—and even if they'd make it to the meeting on time.
Frankly, this stat should come as no surprise. After all, you're trying to build rapport with strangers in an unfamiliar place, you're being put on the spot—and there's a lot at stake from this one encounter.
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But in order to really rock that interview, you've got to push the fear aside and boost your confidence.
And the way to accomplish that is to make sure you know not only what you should say and do—but also all the ways that you could sabotage yourself.
To clue you in on some of the potential pitfalls of the interviewing process, we asked people to fess up to their biggest blunders and subsequent lessons learned, so you won't fall victim to the same snafus.
Interview Mistake #1: Dressing for the Part—but Not the Culture
“I had just graduated and was interviewing for an analyst position at a small financial firm. I was dressed in a black skirt suit and I was carrying a black briefcase. It was my only nice, professional outfit, so I wore it to all of my interviews.
Lo and behold, my interviewer was wearing cutoff shorts and a T-shirt. Even though it was a corporate job, I realized that I should have looked into the company’s dress code. In the middle of the interview, the hiring manager even told me that I seemed too ’professional’ for the position and that my qualifications were too high.
I believe he came to that conclusion because I was dressed ‘incorrectly.’ That taught me to drive by an office a few days prior to an interview to see what people who are walking in and out of the building are wearing.”
—Michelle Schroeder, 25, content manager, St. Louis
Interview Mistake #2: Forgetting a Name
“I arrived early for a job interview at a local government agency and started chatting with the person sitting next to me in the waiting area. I just assumed he was another candidate, but then he introduced himself—and turned out to be a member of one of the two teams I was going to be interviewing with that day.
Unfortunately, his group wasn’t the first one that I met. So by the time I finished interviewing with team number one, I had totally forgotten his name. When I met with him and his colleague, I had to ask for his name again. He seemed surprised and disappointed that I hadn’t remembered, and I ultimately didn’t get the job.
Since that incident, I ask for the correct spelling of a name right after I meet someone, and I write it down. This way, I can keep track of everyone during multiperson interviews—and send thank-you letters.”
—Mary Chase, 53, government administrator, Chicago
Interview Mistake #3: Bringing Up Salary Too Soon
“I once interviewed for a job as an account manager for an advertising agency in New York City. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and really needed to make more money. The interview seemed to be going well, and I had a friend who'd worked with the company, so I had an idea of what the job entailed.
Then, about three-quarters of the way through, I asked possibly the dumbest question I could: How much did the job pay? D’oh! The interviewer didn't really react and said HR would discuss it with me if they chose me. I didn't get the job.
"I had used the interview to fume, and ended up portraying myself as a complainer rather than a team player."
It didn't take long for me to do a massive face-palm and realize how bad it was to ask about salary. I didn't want to go through a job change if I wasn't making a decent amount more than I already was, but I wasn’t thinking about the big picture.
Of course, now I know you don't bring up salary during an initial interview, when you first need to show that you are a good fit for the job and their team. So I’ve learned to let details like salary and benefits wait.”
—Glen Craig, 42, blogger, Nassau, N.Y.
Interview Mistake #4: Badmouthing Colleagues
“While interviewing for a sales position, the hiring manager asked me whether I’d ever had to deal with a difficult co-worker.
I should have given an example of how I’d been able to make a challenging relationship work. What I did instead was immediately delve into a story about a jealous co-worker, going into great detail about what she did that made her so annoying. I wasn't offered the job—surprise, surprise!
I realized later that the hiring managers wanted to know why an incident occurred in the first place, whether I took responsibility for my part and what I learned from the experience—ultimately to determine if I was a cultural fit. Instead, I had used the interview as a time to fume, and ended up portraying myself as a complainer rather than a team player.
Since then, I make sure to study up on a position before the interview to create a clearer picture of who the company’s ideal candidate is. Then I write out a list of questions I know I’ll have a high likelihood of being asked and think about how to answer them in terms of the position.
I also come to the interview mentally prepared to highlight the qualities that they are looking for in the candidate. And I try to take into greater account where the interviewer is coming from, so I can give them a clearer picture of my skill set.”
—Kathlyn Hart, 26, web designer, San Francisco
Interview Mistake #5: Not Being in ‘Ready Mode’
“A friend worked at a major brokerage firm and got me an interview for a risk analyst position. He told me the first interview was always very casual, and the company reps did the majority of the talking. He said they'd give a brief presentation on the history of the company and its culture and values, as well as give a tour of the facility. If I was still interested, I could then request a more formal interview.
Apparently, the interview procedures had changed. I was going in expecting an informal interview, so I was completely unprepared for an interview with the entire team. They were asking me very specific, strategic questions, like, ‘How would you respond if corporate counsel objected to the way you analyzed a particular issue?’
The team members had their poker faces on and were mostly hard to read—except for the main interviewer, who appeared unimpressed with my responses. I knew I had totally bombed it.
As a result, whenever a referral source gets me a job interview, I always ask if the interview process has changed since they were hired to avoid a repeat of the last performance. And I do ample preparation—no matter what.”
—Shane Parks,* 37, lawyer, Winter Park, Fla.
Interview Mistake #6: Not Silencing Your Cell
“I was interviewing with a tech marketing company, and nailing every question. Then, all of a sudden, my phone rang. I politely apologized and informed the interviewer that I was turning it off.
At the time, I was using a temporary slide phone—a dinosaur to people working at a young, cutting-edge company. As I slid it open, the phone slipped out of my hand, bounced off my sassy, pointy-toe pumps and ricocheted across the floor, coming to rest under her desk.
"Rather than say that I was a dedicated young person looking for a long-term career, I tried to get cute and clever. ‘It's the curse of my generation,’ I said. ‘We just aren't made to stay in one role for long.' "
I kept answering her rote questions as I quickly, but not very suavely, retrieved my phone. If I had seen that played out on a sitcom, I'd have been laughing hysterically. Needless to say, I did not get a callback.
It was humbling. As a result, I now research a company’s culture thoroughly, am more attentive to details and, of course, always leave my phone in my car—far, far away from the interview.”
—Jessica Derkis, 40, marketing director, Toledo, Ohio
Interview Mistake #7: Being Too Flip
“As a college student, I made it to the final round of interviews for a prestigious, highly competitive marketing internship with a large company. The interviewer asked me how I felt about the accusation that young professionals were ‘job jumpers’ who had no company loyalty.
Rather than say that I was a dedicated young person looking for a long-term career, I tried to get cute and clever. ‘It's the curse of my generation,’ I said. ‘We just aren't made to stay in one role for long. We bore easily.’
The interviewer wrinkled her nose at my comment, and I obviously did not get the job.
Since then, I’ve always thought of things from the interviewer’s perspective: What would the perfect candidate say? Then I seek to be that perfect candidate.”
—Bill Balderaz, 39, C.E.O. of a marketing firm, Columbus, Ohio
Interview Mistake #8: Not Knowing What the Company Does
“I was interviewing for an entry-level administrative assistant position with a company that had a pink heart in its logo. I assumed it was a dating company, so I started talking about how it was so hard to meet people—the bar scene never works out, you don’t want to date someone from work—and what an innovative idea it was to match couples based on their common interests.
I watched the woman completely shut down as she realized that I didn't do my homework. ‘Yeah, that’s not what we do here,’ she said. Turns out, it was a tech firm. I was so embarrassed and didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, ‘Oh, O.K.’ She thanked me for my time and that was that.
Now I always do my research before I go in to meet anyone in a professional capacity. It takes no time at all to learn something about the person you'll meet, and I also ask smart questions about the company during the interview. It’s the best way to keep the conversation going—and stand out.”
—Kimberly Gauthier, 43, blogger, Marysville, Wash.
Interview Mistake #9: Trashing an Old Employer
“While interviewing for an assistant manager position at a big retailer, the hiring manager asked me to tell him about my last job. I had recently been let go for an extremely trivial reason, and I found myself blurting out every frustration and crappy thing that had happened to me at my old company over the past two years.
Apparently, I was getting loud because the interviewer kept scooting away from me and glancing around frantically as if looking for an escape route. It eventually dawned on me that not only was I not going to get the job, but there was a chance he might call security. He seemed visibly relieved when I finally let him end the interview.
"The hiring manager asked if I was wearing a new suit. I smiled, proud of my suit, and said, ‘How could you tell?’ Her reply: ‘All the tags are still on.’"
What did I learn? Deal with my emotional baggage on my own time. If someone asks about a previous employer now, I just say they were a great company and I was happy for the opportunities they gave me.”
—Samuel Morningstar, 42, writer, Prairie Village, Kan.
Interview Mistake #10: Rushing to Get Ready
“When I was fresh out of school, I had an interview with a large law firm. I had recently bought a new suit, specifically for interviewing, and wore it to the meeting. Everything seemed to go well, but just as I was about to leave, the hiring manager asked me if I was wearing a new suit.
I smiled, proud of my suit and my interview performance, and said, ‘Why, yes. How could you tell?’ Her reply: ‘Because all the tags are still on it.’
Sure enough, the suit was covered in price tags and sizing stickers—on the pants and jacket. I was so embarrassed, but I kept it polite, thanking her for pointing that out and meeting with me.
I have no idea whether the suit incident was responsible, but I didn't get the job. Nonetheless, I now leave myself a window before any interview, big meeting or presentation for a final game-time rundown. I review what I will be discussing, go through a mental checklist of things I need—and make sure that I look presentable.”
—Sean Morrison, 33, lawyer, New Orleans
*Name has been changed.